Cultivating Context in Your Coaching

As a coach, it’s easy to be comfortable with sets, reps, work-to-rest ratios, and 1RM percentages. These are all nice, tidy numbers that are easy to keep track of. They’re a necessary requirement for designing, executing, and monitoring programs.

And yet our athletes do not function in a world of absolutes that we can assign numerical or binary (this or that, yes or no, 0 or 1) values to. In fact, their life is constantly changing, and this can have just as much impact on training outcomes as anything we can objectively measure...

...Which is why we must embrace context.

The tendency in the coaching community can be to isolate physical performance and progression in a reductionist manner detached from the reality of how humans actually learn and grow. We can easily fall into the trap of believing that progress is stable, progressive, and linear. But due to the chaos, instability, and mutability of life, the client's environment is always evolving, as are their physical, emotional, and cognitive demands.

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This means that rather than being a straight line or neat curve, growth (and, conversely, decay) actually occurs on an undulating spectrum that goes up and down over time.

So the athlete’s readiness to accept a certain training load is unlikely to be the same on any two days, even though the stimuli might be identical.

Similarly, their adaptation to such stimuli might be optimal today if they’ve made good nutritional choices, slept well, and everything’s going well at work and home. But after the same session next week, their ability to process the stimulus and adapt to it could be compromised by poor food choices, inadequate rest, a run-in with their boss, and a fight with their significant other. These are factors we can’t deal with by just telling the client to “work harder” or by sticking rigidly to our programming, carefully designed as it may be.

To get optimal game day performance tomorrow, we sometimes need to back off to 50 or 60 percent effort today. And sometimes it isn’t even about an upcoming physical contest, but just helping them stay healthy and sane.

Situation x Behavior = Results

Instead of encouraging our athletes to go all out all the time, we need to embrace the different context that every person brings with them when they come to the gym, and adapt accordingly. This enables our mindset to be fluid enough to match the inherent changeability of the growth spectrum.

If you know a client is under pressure in their job, has just taken a cross-country red-eye flight, or is having family problems, perhaps you change the focus of today’s session from a power-centric workout to one that concentrates on efficient movement with a light load. Or if they’re involved in a sport, a pickup game could be a better plan. Conversely, if an athlete has recovered from the previous session more fully than you expected, perhaps you swap out a skill day session for a higher output one.

Gaining sufficient understanding to make these in-the-moment adjustments doesn’t require you to take some expensive interpersonal communications course or spend all your time making programming tweaks. Rather, you should seek to cultivate meaningful relationships with your athletes, gain their trust, and encourage constant two-way feedback.

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Asking a few simple, generic questions like, “How are you feeling today?” and a couple of more specific ones such as, “Did you sort that issue out with your boss?” and “How’s your son doing with that school problem?” can go a long way to providing meaningful context.

One of your aims for every one of your athletes is likely empowering them to achieve progress. This is a noble goal, but such advancement can only be sustainable when we fully understand how human growth and transformation occurs. How this happens in your gym is no different than any other area of life. It consists of the same four elements:

  • Experience
  • Behavior
  • Relationships
  • System

Taking it from the top, the client must have enough positive experiences to create sufficient motivation and emotional engagement to prompt them to start cultivating a behavior. In order for them to stick with the behavior long enough for it to become a habit, there needs to be adequate relationship-based support to encourage the behavior to perpetuate.

From your standpoint, this starts with your own connection to the client. But we need to recognize that one positive relationship can be undermined by several negative ones. This is why all of the coaches at your gym need to be invested in creating a positive and affirming environment. And your members should become invested in your community and culture.

Finally, there needs to be systems in place to bolster the other three elements.

One of the coaches who I’m mentoring shared a great formula for achieving and sustaining growth-promoting habits that his DISC (a mental skills program) coach gave him: situation x behavior = results.

The experiences you create, environment they occur in, relationships that develop there, and systems you set up (everything from your programming to level of service) all factor into creating a positive situation. If you can develop sufficient engagement at both hard (logical – I understand why I should be doing this) and soft (emotional – doing this makes me feel this way) levels to keep the client coming back into such a situation for long enough, you’re going to groove consistent behavior.

You should also factor in sufficient consistency to make results measurable over time and satisfy more rational, linear-thinking clients while mixing in enough variety to keep the thrill-seekers interested and excited about their training.

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The best coaches create conditions in which their athletes can achieve three crucial elements of self-determination theory:

  • A sense of ownership
  • A degree of autonomy
  • A sense of belonging

Acquiring Skills vs. Developing Work Capacity

If you only ever have your athletes do high intensity, threshold-level work, they’re going to get burned out mentally and physically. On the flip side, if they’re only focusing on skill development, they will never perform at their best on game day because competition demands going at full speed.

So you need to be constantly looking for the balance between increasing their work capacity with high-demand sessions and enhancing their skillset during sub-maximal efforts.

It’s also worth embracing the fact that clients’ personalities go a long way in determining their preferences for these two types of training. Some will be hard chargers who naturally gravitate toward high-octane, redline sessions. Others will have a more creative and exploratory tendency that makes them enjoy skill-based work. Rather than this being an either/or situation, everyone will be somewhere on this continuum.

Again, getting to know the athlete as a person will provide some valuable context in this area, and ensure that each client’s behavior is synching with their stated goals.

While there is no magic formula, you can also use a simple breakdown that my fellow coaches and I created over tens of thousands of training hours. It’s simply:

The latter refers to those days when a client needs to grit out a session in spite of their circumstances.

I recently had to fly to Minnesota to collect my daughter, got very little sleep for a couple of nights, and then had an 18-hour day jam-packed with meetings and training clients. Then my 8-year-old had a meltdown that I just didn’t know how to deal with because I was so exhausted. This provided some life-based context for how I should structure my next workout. I decided to focus on skill and moving smoothly and efficiently through some bodyweight exercises instead of the strength/speed workout I had initially planned on.

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Doing so gave me back some much-needed capacity for parenting and allowed me to get purposeful activity in while still resting up a little during one of the most stressful periods of my life. But then the next day, when I was still not 100% recovered cognitively or physically, I ended up doing a more intense work capacity session, recognizing I needed to develop mental toughness in sub-optimal conditions. That might seem like a contradiction to what we discussed earlier, but it isn’t.

Yes, on some occasions when a client is worn out, it’s best to have them back off or take an active rest day. But occasionally we need to develop resilience and push through. Again, this is a decision that you make by combining context with knowledge of your program and understanding of each athlete’s tendencies, aptitudes, and capacity.

Dynamic Coaching

Life is not static but dynamic, which means that the training environment must be too. As our clients’ existences are evolving from minute to minute and day to day, we must make our coaching mindset more malleable. Simply looking at a set of numbers is only going to tell part of the story of any athlete’s performance and recovery.

We also need a qualitative overlay that takes the bigger, macro-level picture into account and allows us to respect the undulation of growth and decay that our clients are experiencing. Rather than boxing them in with rigid training parameters, we need to give them space for growth to unfold.

It’s time for us to come back to context.

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About The Author

Kenny Kane holds multiple certifications and is a graduate of SealFit’s Kokoro Camp. The practical and spiritual teachings from Kenny’s diverse athletic training have culminated in his context-driven coaching methodology where body, mind, and heart are given equal weight in the portrait of good health. Kenny has implemented his mind-body training protocol whilst coaching Olympians, NBA players, Premiere League soccer players, A-list celebrities, CrossFit Games athletes, and nine-to- fivers alike. He has also developed and directed several fitness programs for kids, coached an adaptive athlete to compete alongside able-bodied competitors, and continues to contribute to broader philosophical discussions concerning public health in podcasts and other forums with elite athletes, movement and human bioenergetics specialists, and thought leaders from around the world. He is the owner of and head coach at Oak Park, home of CrossFit Los Angeles.

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